Kudos to Council for addressing Honolulu permitting delays

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By Keli‘i Akina

How long should Oahu residents have to wait for a permit to repair or renovate their homes? A few days? Weeks? Months?

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As recently as 2017, it took about three months. That might seem short compared to the average wait now of about six months, but it’s still too long. For commercial projects, the average wait can be more than a year.

On a recent episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Honolulu City Councilmember Andria Tupola recalled being greeted by a mountain of constituent complaints about permit delays upon taking office in 2021. In response, she hosted a town hall with Dean Uchida, then director of the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, and learned that the city had a backlog of about 8,000 permit applications.

Not only is that a huge number, Tupola said, “but if you quantify that into dollars, into projects, into homes, I mean, we’re talking billions of dollars that are just stuck in the economy because they can’t get a permit to proceed.”

So Tupola began working with DPP and her fellow Council members to figure out where they could achieve meaningful change. And, amazingly, they really have been able to make a dent in the permitting backlog.

Bill 51 (2022), introduced by Councilmember Brandon Elefante and now a city ordinance, removed the requirement that permit seekers submit a notarized statement affirming there are no fines or liens on their properties. This makes it easier for contractors representing homeowners to get started on their jobs. 

Tupola, meanwhile, had the brilliant idea that maybe too many permits are being required in the first place.

“If we have a huge permitting line of 8,000 people, we may be micromanaging things that we shouldn’t be doing, right? Because perhaps some of these outdated laws needed to be updated,” she explained.

This led to the Council and mayor approving Bill 56, which eliminated permits for some projects completely, such as fences 6 feet high or less, and increased the value threshold for other projects. 

For example, it used to be that you needed a permit if the “valuation in the aggregate in any 12-month period” of home repairs or replacements of existing parts — not including electrical, plumbing or mechanical installations — was $5,000 or more. Now it’s $10,000 or more.

For electrical work, the valuation threshold used to be $500 or more; for plumbing, it was $1,000. Now both are $2,500.

These and other measures have helped ease some of the pressure on DPP. But we still need substantial reforms if we want to reduce the backlog and keep wait times low. 

One possibility being considered is professional self-certification. In particular, Bill 6 (2023) would allow experts to attest that their plans comply with the county’s building code and any applicable regulations, then receive a permit without having to go through the lengthy DPP review process.

Some people have expressed concerns about this proposal, but the practice has been successful in other cities, including New York and Chicago. In Chicago, an architect can self-certify a plan and receive a permit within 10 days

Ultimately, I am encouraged that Tupola, Elefante and all our elected officials on the Honolulu City Council have recognized the expense and aggravation caused by permitting delays, and with the mayor’s support are willing to explore new avenues to address the backlog and speed up the process.

Let’s hope these small wins start a trend in Hawaii of streamlining the permitting process and reducing bureaucratic delays. Before you know it, we might even be able to produce more housing across the board and lower construction costs to make homes more affordable for all.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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